How to have grown up conversations with your staff

Written by
Alex Swarbrick

05 Jan 2016

05 Jan 2016 • by Alex Swarbrick

Where do you want to be in five years time?

It’s a question we’ve all been asked, and maybe even asked someone else, often accompanied by an eye roll. So, if it’s corny and sliding towards irrelevance, how do we frame more grown up career conversations?

For me, there are two things we should be doing. Firstly, we need to ask the right questions. Then, we must join the dots.

Starting with the questions:

  • First, you need to establish who owns the career conversation process; the individual or the organisation? And are we pretending something different?
  • If it’s not five years, what time frame do we have in mind? Short, medium or long term?
  • What’s driving the conversation? Skills shortages in particular roles? Development needs? Both?

After this, we need to assess how well do our succession planning, talent management and career processes fit together. That’s what I mean by ‘joining the dots’. The most meaningful, and frankly ‘grown up’, career conversations are informed by both the succession planning and talent management strategies. But that requires clarity about the purpose and process of each.

Let’s start with succession planning.

We know the choices, dilemmas and tensions that can surround succession planning so you need to ask: "What’s driving your approach?"

In ‘Planning for Succession in Changing Times’[1] Roffey Park Associate Wendy Hirsh cites British Gas who describe succession planning as risk management. Two of the risks they list are vacancy risk – critical roles left vacant with no identified successor; and readiness risk – the risk of potential successors not being ready.

So, effective succession planning strategies combine the organisational and the individual; join the dots of the succession and development agendas.

“Succession planning from the organisations point of view really amounts to career development from the individual perspective. (p55)

By applying the risk management concept in a grown up way we start to grapple with real questions and challenges. Where are our highest risk roles and vacancies, whether in leadership or elsewhere? Is our strategy built on identifying potential successors for the roles, about planning career moves and development for individuals, or both?

In many organisations there’s a fear that successors won’t wait for the roles they’re being prepared for, particularly those with highly marketable, high demand skills. So how do we sustain their engagement and join the dots between our succession and talent strategies? And what are our values when it comes to open competition for roles versus appointment of prepared successors?


[1]Planning for Succession in Changing Times’ Wendy Hirsh. Corporate Research Forum September 2012

Talent management

At Roffey Park, we’ve just published a research report on the ubiquitous nine box grid[1]. The research took an ‘inside out’ perspective with specific interest in the experiences of those using the grid to rate others or being rated themselves.

Among other things, our findings suggest that the grid process is failing to engage a high percentage of employees. Nearly 40% of those rated with some potential described themselves as ‘switched off’ by the process, less positive about their career prospects and possibly demotivated as a result. Even among the higher rated, ‘any motivational benefits are short-lived, particularly where there is a lack of follow-on or development action..’ (p5)

Whether or not it’s the nine box grid, talent management seeks to ensure the organisation has the right people in the right place at the right time. But if you are using the grid, don’t forget to ask the question ‘potential for what'? And by when, and what experiences, and development will help the individual be ready?

So joining the talent management and succession planning dots, ‘[2]talent management may tell you which people you should retain, stretch and develop. Succession planning helps you work out what to do with them’.

When it comes to grown up career conversations, who should be holding them? In our experience, if managers don’t have the necessary skills, it’s important that people receive career support from HR or elsewhere, beyond their line manager. And HR needs to invest in building managers skills so these conversations will be effective.

Whoever holds it, the conversation will be all the more purposeful for the individual and the organisation if it is informed by the succession planning and talent management processes.

  • From a succession perspective, can you see this person doing job x in the future? Short, medium or long term?
  • From a talent perspective, besides judgements on performance and potential, how do this individual’s aspirations fit the needs we have?

For career conversations to be grown up, it’s also time to question some of the secrecy that often surrounds talent management and succession planning. It rarely serves the organisation well, and the evidence is it demotivates employees.

Whether you start from a succession perspective, a talent perspective or both, grown up career conversations can revolve around possible future roles; should focus as much on the experiences the individual needs to gain as any formal development, and, taking account of individual’s aspirations and flat organisation structures, might even touch on options outside the organisation. Someone was telling me recently about their organisation’s deliberate investment in people they know will leave, because they also know that they tend to come back for the next career move but one.

So, where do you want to be in five years? 

[1]Is the nine box grid all about being in the top right? Employee experiences of the nine box grid’ Jane Yarnall and Dan Lucy. Roffey Park. September 2015.

[2]Planning for Succession in Changing Times’ Wendy Hirsh. Corporate Research Forum September 2012 (p81)